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Dear Democrats, Stop Worrying About Paranoid Gun Owners

A new political strategy to reduce gun violence in America.

Richard Ellis/Getty Images

At CNN’s recent town hall on guns, President Barack Obama vehemently denied that his recent executive actions are part of a “conspiracy” to disarm the American public, and emphasized how modest his initiatives really are. “We put out a proposal that is commonsense, modest, does not claim to solve every problem, is respectful of the Second Amendment,” he said. “And the way it is described is that we’re trying to take away everybody’s guns.” He was then challenged on whether his actions were too modest to have any effect on gun violence.

Thus, the president was caught in a Catch-22 successfully deployed by pro-gun advocates. Any gun-control proposal is met with the charge that it’s the first step toward the confiscation of all guns. In response, the gun-control advocate insists the proposal is limited. Its limitations then allow its opponents to raise questions about its likely effectiveness. In this way, calls for greater gun control are weakened on both fronts, undermining an argument that—if polls are to be believed—should be palatable to a wide swath of the country.

The time has come for a new strategy, one that prioritizes public safety over the paranoia of some gun owners.

The consequences of this Catch-22 are apparent in the countless loopholes and inconsistencies in the nation’s gun laws, many resulting from the efforts of legislators to reassure gun owners that the law in question will not threaten their guns. The limitations of the federal background check system itself are evidence of the potency of the Catch-22 strategy. Background checks are required only for sales by licensed dealers, thus exempting the many thousands of transactions between persons who are not licensed dealers. And only people who fall within certain narrowly drawn categories of prohibited buyers can be denied guns. For example, although domestic violence misdemeanants may be denied guns, perpetrators of other violent misdemeanors are not barred, even though such offenses are predictors of more serious violent crimes.

The system also puts a premium on the need to complete the background check quickly, to minimize any inconvenience to gun buyers; it is, after all, called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The law requires that the check be completed within three business days, which has resulted in thousands of sales to prohibited buyers due to incomplete record reviews, including the shooter who murdered nine parishioners at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The premium on speed also means that only records that have been entered into a computerized database can be checked, allowing sales to people like the Virginia Tech shooter, whose record of being adjudicated as mentally ill and dangerous had not been entered into the system. Finally, the system allows no discretion for denying guns to buyers who may have repeatedly manifested violent tendencies, but have not yet committed an act that would fit one of the defined categories of “prohibited purchaser.” 

In short, the system is designed to minimize its impact on gun buyers, not to maximize its effectiveness in curbing gun sales to dangerous people. Even so, the NICS system created by the Brady Law has blocked sales to more than two million legally prohibited gun buyers and undoubtedly made our nation far safer. Nevertheless, much has been made of the fact that many of the mass shootings that have horrified the nation were committed by people who passed the NICS background check. This is true even though a number of the mass shooters had manifested troubling signs of potential violence, which more lengthy and thorough background checks may have revealed. But the failure of the system to prevent gun sales to mass murderers likely creates doubt in the public’s mind about the efficacy of background checks and other gun laws. 

How, then, can the gun-control side avoid this Catch-22?

To make greater progress against gun violence, it is far more important to convince the public that stronger gun laws will reduce gun violence and save lives than it is to assuage the fears of some gun owners. The gun owners who fear gun confiscation are unlikely to be persuaded by assurances that gun-control laws will do no such thing. But there’s another reality to contend with: The American public, despite its broad support for expanded background checks and other specific proposals for stronger gun laws, has long been skeptical about their effectiveness in reducing gun violence. In 1994, the year following the enactment of the Brady Law and the year the decade-long assault weapon ban was enacted, one poll showed that only 34 percent of the American people believed that gun control laws would reduce violent crime, while 62 percent said they would not. A recent CNN poll showed that 56 percent of Americans think it is unlikely that expanded gun laws would be able to prevent those with mental health problems from buying guns and 58 percent think it is unlikely that such laws would keep guns out of the hands of convicted criminals. Although most Americans will express support for particular gun control proposals because they think they make sense, many appear to doubt that, if enacted, they will make a real difference in their lives.

Obama, in an op-ed published the same day as the CNN town hall, pledged that he would not support any candidate who did not support sensible gun laws. He also urged others to join him in making that commitment. In other words, the president is calling on more supporters of gun control to make it a voting issue. He realizes that the “intensity gap” is a central reason for the lack of progress on gun control: Legislators and policymakers perceive that, of Americans who vote for or against candidates largely because of their stance on the gun issue, the vast majority are hostile to gun control. The president correctly understands that the politics of the gun issue will not change fundamentally until the intensity gap is reduced by increasing the number of gun control supporters who will make it a voting issue.

This does not mean that the gun control forces should abandon incremental change in favor of a radical agenda. It does mean that gun control advocates, as they press for modest but achievable reforms now, should not hesitate to show that broader reforms would save even more lives. For example, as they press for extending background checks to all gun sales, they should also demonstrate that even more lives would be saved by expanding the categories of automatically prohibited buyers to include more dangerous individuals and by allowing the authorities some discretion to deny gun sales to persons with a record of violent activity that may not fall within those categories.  

In short, part of the response to the argument that gun control is ineffective is to show that more gun control would be more effective. The way out of the gun control Catch-22, and the path to fundamental change on the gun issue, is to convince the public that strong gun laws can save countless lives, and that the “slippery slope to confiscation” argument is nothing but an appeal to irrational fear that stands in the way of life-saving progress. In the long run, allowing gun policy to be dominated by the need to reassure fearful gun owners will not get us the strong gun laws we need and deserve.